Huge hydrogen fuel cell stacks capable of providing thousands of homes with green power may arrive in a few years thanks to cheaper component parts, according to developer AFC Energy.
Although hydrogen fuel cell technology has been around for decades, commercialization has been restricted as expensive platinum was needed to make the catalyst, a problem AFC said it has overcome by using low-cost ceramic minerals instead. “You can buy these ceramic catalyst materials, which used to be around 30 pounds a gram, at around 30 pence per gram, which has changed the economic argument,” AFC technical director Gene Lewis said. This compares to around 34.60 pounds per gram for platinum.
The alkaline fuel cell developer plans to test a 50 kilowatt block next year, which is designed to be connected to others to build huge stacks. AFC said it plans to demonstrate a stack with output capacity in the megawatt range in the next 18 months. “That leaves plenty of time to scale up. For tens of megawatts for the chloralkali industry in 2013, and hundreds of megawatts from 2015 onwards,” AFC founder Howard White said. “We see no reason why it can’t be commercialized by next year.”
Through a chemical process, fuel cells generate electricity without producing climate-warming carbon emissions by consuming hydrogen, with heat and water as byproducts. Hydrogen can be produced from processing natural gas — with the carbon removed and buried — and is also produced in some chemical manufacturing such as the chloralkali process.
AFC, based in Cranleigh in south England with a staff of around 25, estimated the capital cost of the fuel cell will be under 400,000 pounds ($635,300) per megawatt hour of output.”This is substantially less than a fossil fuel turbine based plant,” White said.
AFC is part of two consortiums that are developing large fuel cell power projects in Britain. One, with clean technology company B9 Coal and utility Powerfuel, aims to install up to 300 megawatts (MW) at Powerfuel’s planned 900 MW integrated gasification combined-cycle (IGCC) Hatfield power plant. Powerfuel intends to convert coal into a carbon-less synthetic gas (syngas) to burn in the Hatfield plant as well as process it to produce hydrogen for the cells.
The other project with B9 Gas and Rio Tinto Alcan’s 500 megawatt Lynemouth coal-fired plant in northeast England would also use syngas from underground coal seams to make hydrogen to power the fuel cell.While there are a number of large above-ground commercial facilities that produce syngas from coal similar to the Hatfield project, there are only a few small underground syngas projects which the Lynemouth plant plans to use.
And although taking the carbon out of syngas to produce hydrogen is an established process, it involves high capital investment and also lowers the energy content of the resulting hydrogen compared to the source fossil fuel. Industry observers say the extra process may mean burning the syngas to rotate gas and steam turbines as a cheaper way to generate power unless the price of carbon — as traded through the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) — is high enough to encourage hydrogen production to feed into fuel cells.